With 2009 about to draw to a close, now seems like a good time to look back on a year of Wednesdays and remind myself of the reason I buy new comics every week. To remember that it's worth sifting through the piles of never-ending zombie comics, celebrity biography cash-ins and Barack Obama team-ups because every once in a while you find a great story with beautiful artwork. And so you come back the next week because maybe you'll find another one.
So here's the list of my ten favorite single issues of 2009. Some of these I've already talked about elsewhere as part of our review of the past year in comics, and some I'm recognizing here for the first time:
The Six I Haven't Previously Mentioned, in No Particular Order-
The Stuff of Legend 1
"The Stuff of Legend" begins with what could be the premise of a simple good versus evil children's film: a ragtag band of talking toys join together to save the child who owns them from the boogeyman. And yet what follows is a nuanced tale of complex characters well told by Mike Raicht and Brian Smith with beautiful artwork by Charles Paul Wilson III. "The Stuff of Legend" has been one of the most wonderful surprises of the past year, a story filled with twists and turns. Raicht and Smith have created a stellar cast of characters in their series, and its first issue was a startling introduction to a fully realized world.
Wilson's two art styles, one for the real world and a second for the world of the Dark in which the toys most venture, are remarkable. Little touches, like the teddy bear changing from a stuffed animal in reality to a vicious grizzly bear in the other world, are well done. And the examination of all the characters' motivations, in particular the paths taken by the toy soldier and the piggy bank in issue 1, is the real core of a thoroughly entertaining adventure story. One that's accessible to both children and adults. With a limited print run that's flown off the shelves, you may have missed this one the first time around. If you did, I strongly recommend finding a way to track this book down if you can.
Fantastic Four 571
I'd never before counted the Fantastic Four as among my favorite superhero teams. But then Jonathan Hickman started writing the series and changed all that. Admittedly, Hickman's first story arc on the series, "Solve Everything" is more focused on Reed Richards than on the group as a whole. But it turns out what I needed to start caring about the team was a story focusing on Richards the person, on his goals, on how much he cares for his family. By giving me a real appreciation of the motivation and stakes at play whenever this man pilots a high tech '60s sci-fi spaceship into another dimension to face bizarre and fantastic beings, I've started to care about what happens to him and those he loves.
Hickman and artist Dale Eaglesham's run started with issue 570, but it was the second of the three issue arc, issue 571, that cemented this book as a must-read for me. After killing off a Galactus on the first few pages, Hickman switches to an enjoyable slice of Richards family life, including a fun exchange between Franklin and Johnny Storm, showing off how well he can handle any of the characters in the series. This then leads into a wonderful exchange between Reed and Sue, in which Reed is defiantly unapologetic of his advanced intelligence in a character defining scene. And then the rest of the issue beautifully sets the stakes of Reed's goals. The Council of other Reeds from other universes present to him proof of what can be accomplished if he truly wants to achieve his plan to "solve everything", while also showing him an idea of the steep costs involved. After it all I find that I'm finally able to approach seeing the world through Reed Richards' eyes, appreciating what goes through his mind with every decision he has to make. And now I'm reading Fantastic Four every month.
And while I'm praising Hickman's writing, I'll also mention his story in the "Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu" one shot
that I highlighted in ComicsAlliance's 2009 Superlatives. He once again told a great story about a character I didn't previously have much invested in, this time showing off his impressive comedic talents.
Doctor Who: The Whispering Gallery
I'll admit that I'm usually skeptical of comics that tie-in with existing film and television properties. It's so difficult to capture the spirit of a work presented in a two hour movie or in half-hour or full hour episodes and give the audience the same thrills in the briefer experience of a monthly twenty-two page comic. Particularly in the case of a show like "Doctor Who," which relies heavily on the talents of its cast to bring forward the vibrant personalities of each character and so often needs the full hour to pack in every element of its story, producing a comic worthy of the name is a daunting task. And so I'm glad I was able to move past those doubts and gave a chance to "Doctor Who: The Whispering Gallery," an excellent one-shot tale written by Leah Moore and John Reppion with art by Ben Templesmith.
Moore and Reppion present a version of David Tennant's tenth iteration of The Doctor that should be familiar in tone to fans of the show, and build around him a wonderful examination of hidden emotions, untold secrets, and the pressure societies can create to keep them that way. It's a story that presents a moving exploration of our inner selves takes place in a fantastic alien world, and in that respect it's a worthy addition to the franchise's history. Also worth mentioning is the artwork of Ben Templesmith. Templesmith, because of his more surreal visuals, isn't the first artist you'd normally expect to be asked to handle an adaptation of a live action television series. But what's on display here is a beautiful blend of the visual style of the show and his own style. His depictions of The Doctor and companion Martha Jones are far more realistic in appearance than his usual work, and yet are still are charged with a dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish quality that's a fitting match for the story being told. If you missed this one when it was originally released, IDW's recently included as part of a trade paperback collection of one-shots centering on the tenth Doctor entitled "Doctor Who: Through Time and Space."
Detective Comics 857
ComicsAlliance has already rightfully recognized Detective Comics as one of the best series of the past year
. And I could point to any one of the seven issues Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III have produced so far as an example of how great their work has been. But I'm singling out the fourth and final issue of the first Batwoman arc, Elegy. When the creative team gave Kate Kane her first real introduction to readers after a long stretch as a supporting character, it was clear they were doing top notch work. But the premiere issue was so impressive it was hard to believe the two could maintain a consistent level of quality that high in the issues that followed. "Detective" 857 is the issue that stuck the landing on the first arc, and proved they could end a story as well as they'd started it. And thankfully that trend that continued into the second story arc, which has given us an outstanding origin story for the character. 857 also merits special mention because it contains some of the most beautifully composed and illustrated one and two page action spreads Williams has produced for the series. The two-page layout in which the comic's panels are inserted in the folds of Batwoman and Alice's capes as the forms of the two blend together in the center of the image is going to be one of the long-lasting visuals of comics in 2009.
A good piece of historical fiction makes you appreciate the fact that, although the people you're reading about lived in a different age, they cared about the same basic things you and I care about. And all throughout history, first and foremost has been survival. People like to know they're going to get through any difficulties that come their way and survive to see the next day. They're willing to do just about anything to get there, and they often get upset, violent and resort to all kinds of foul language if it looks like this may be difficult.
Brian Wood's "Northlanders" has been a remarkable example of this, exploring the lives of the Vikings and those drawn into their path of destruction. But rather than speaking and acting like figures out of a formalized saga, acting out of respect for time honored traditions and speaking in brief declarative sentences that still bear a flavor of ancient translations, Wood's Vikings are relatable to the modern reader. Issue 17 was a one-shot story, following the rules and psychology behind a single combat between champions meant to resolve a dispute between rival clans. And it's filled with all the underhanded tactics and profanity you'd expect from two men who enjoy killing other men and are desperate to be alive and well to see the next sunrise. They gloat and they trash-talk, and thanks to Vasilis Lolos' artwork it's an exciting fight to behold. It's a remarkable window into the mindset of other people in a desperate situation in another time, not to mention a thrilling story.
The Unwritten 1
It's difficult to decide whether to single out the first or fifth issue of Mike Carey and Peter Gross' Vertigo series. But while the fifth issue, an excellent standalone story focusing on Rudyard Kipling, restored my faith in the series and convinced me the creators knew where they were going and what they wanted to tell a story about, I have to give the edge to the premiere issue of "The Unwritten," which thanks to Vertigo is readable for free on their website
. "The Unwritten" #1 does everything a good first issue should do to draw readers into the story. It introduces us to all the history we need to know about Tom Taylor, a young man living in the shadow of his father's career as a legendary writer, and the namesake of his father's most famous character, a boy wizard destined to save his fantasy world from a powerful undying evil wizard. It shows us how conflicted Tom is, insecure about his place in life and yet perfectly willing to make a buck of the legacy of his mysteriously disappeared father.
Then it drops the twist, the fact that Tom's history is difficult to trace, and that there are some devoted fans who have come to believe he is somehow the fictional character made real. And finally we're shown the vaguest hint of a conspiratorial organization that sees Tommy as a threat, and would like nothing more than to have him conveniently removed. Tom's climactic issue 1 exchange with the evil Count Ambrosio about the importance of stories and their effect on the world around them begins to examine the theme central to the series, a point that would be revisited again and again as the story progressed in the months that followed.
And a Quick Recap of the Four I've Already Discussed
I've already applauded the following books on ComicsAlliance's Best of 2009 List and Superlatives, but I'll briefly go over them again here.
I praised Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' pulp superhero miniseries in our recap of the year's best titles
, but if I had to pick a favorite issue out of the six issue run I'm going to go with number three. This is the moment when things start to go from bad to worse for Zack Overkill. Farmer, the only person close to a friend he'd thought he'd made since being forced into a normal life, finds out he has superpowers and starts blackmailing him into committing petty crimes. When Farmer seems likely to force Zack into pulling a bank heist, Zack decides things have gone too far and something drastic is going to have to be done to end the problem. But before any of that can happen, Zack's old friends show up to kill him. This issue has some of the best scenes of watching Zack waver back and forth between his old path as a costumed criminal and new path as an accidental vigilante, and reinforces the fact that in the series there aren't really any good guys, just people trying to get what they want out of a world they see as cruel and unfair.
Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time 4
The third volume in Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener's absolute blast of a century spanning sci-fi/supernatural adventure series was a lot of fun, but my favorite story of the five issue arc has got to be the fourth issue. Set in 1971, the title character is in the midst of a decades-long struggle with a cosmic horror that exists outside our perceptions of time. And so he enlists astronomer Carl Sagan to help him study the beast and try to find a way to stop it from retroactively destroying all of existence. What follows is a respectful homage to Sagan and the pursuit of science mixed with the series' excellent sense of humor. It's one of the most purely fun issues I read all year.
Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's series ended with its twenty-seventh issue this year after a run that lasted over ten years and was marked by several long breaks. And yet somehow the concluding issue seemed all the better for it, as the final story that tied up the remaining loose ends benefited from the long break that followed issue #26. Planetary 27 was a fitting end to the adventure, a reminder that just because the good guys won and the bad guys lost doesn't mean the work of making the world a better place is over.
Incredible Hercules 135
I grew up playing pen and paper RPGs, so naturally I got a kick out of Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente and Rodney Buchemi's story in which Amadeus Cho fights a battle of wits against arch-rival Pythagoras Dupree on the battlefield of a black and white grid on a tabletop featuring a gamemaster's screen and dice of varying numbers of sides. But the fact that they were actually able to make the game interesting and at the same time use it to display a visual representation of Cho's amazing mental powers to the reader is an impressive achievement. Add in the over-the-top elements of the game itself, including Cho's fight with Dr. Japanazi, a giant-brained evil scientist who appears to be stitched together from two halves of other evil Axis scientists, and the end result is one of the most enjoyable issues from a series that was always a good read in 2009.